It’s not only the National Basketball Association that suffered a huge blow with Kobe Bryant’s passing, but the women’s game was also impacted by losing one of the sport’s biggest ambassadors.
In an interview with CNBC, San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon, who played eight seasons in the WNBA, described Bryant as a “basketball fan” who “appreciated” the women’s league.
“He watched the WNBA, and I think as he had more time on his hands in retirement, he got more involved and was just beginning to be that voice for so many women that maybe didn’t have a strong voice or as big or as loud or carried as much weight as his did, and still does,” Hammon said before the Spurs hosted the Chicago Bulls Monday night. “The women’s game lost a real advocate and someone who truly believed that women can do anything.”
Bryant, and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, were among nine people killed in a helicopter crash Sunday morning in Calabasas, Los Angeles. Bryant was 41 and survived by his wife Vanessa, their daughters Natalia, Bianka, and Capri.
The son of former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, Kobe support of women’s sports was well documented, and it was Gianna developing a passion for basketball that returned Bryant to the sport he spent most of his life mastering.
In a recent basketball podcast conversation with former NBA players Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes, Bryant told the pair he started watching the game once again when he noticed his daughter getting more involved in the sport.
“I hardly watched it,” he told the pair earlier this month. “But now that she’s into basketball, it’s on every night.”
After retiring from the NBA in 2016, Bryant became an ambassador to women’s hoops on all levels, and often attended WNBA games with his daughters. Bryant also was a spectator at collegiate games, making visits to University of Connecticut, where Gianna had dreams of playing under legendary women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma.
According to reports, the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter carrying Bryant, Gianna, and seven others passengers was headed to Thousand Oaks for a basketball tournament at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy before the helicopter crashed. Bryant launched the academy in 2018 to assist athletes with performance training and also used the space to coach the AAU team Gianna played on.
“She loved it,” Hammon said of Gianna’s love for basketball. “You could tell. That’s what so great about sports; the quality time that she got with her dad, the quality time that he invested in her, they found a common bond.
“It’s a special bond; it’s the father-daughter bond, and then it’s this thing beyond that, which is sports, that they could connect on,” she said. “The belief that he had in his daughter, the belief that he had in women’s basketball – the appreciation he had for women’s basketball, touched me, motivated me, inspired me.”
Before departing from the NBA in 2016, Bryant finished his career with 33,643 career points (fourth), 48,637 minutes (eighth) and appeared in 1,346 games (15th). At 34 years old, Bryant became the youngest player in NBA history to surpass the 30,000-point mark in a career that will receive that highest level of approval this year, in Springfield, Massachusetts, according to Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame chairman Jerry Colangelo.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert called Bryant a “true legend” for his support for the league and “helping young girls and boys follow their dreams.”
“We admired him not just as a legendary basketball player, but as a father, a youth coach, and a role model for future generations of athletes,” Engelbert said in a statement.
“He understood what it took to fight and to win and to maintain a certain level of living whether it was on the court or off the court,” NBA agent Aaron Goodwin of Goodwin Sports Management told CNBC. “He put his time into being the best that he could be, and he took no prisoners.”
Hammon, who sits 12th on the WNBA all-time scoring list (5,841 points), recalled when she initially discovered Bryant was a fan of her basketball skills. While on a road trip with the New York Liberty. She couldn’t remember the exact year, but Hammon said a Los Angeles Sparks team employee approached her, saying: “Kobe loves the way you play.”
And Bryant displayed his admiration of Hammon’s game by identifying “a girl that was maybe smaller than everybody else and she was hopping, he’d start calling them a ‘Little Becky Hammon,'” she said. “And because everybody knew he was about such excellence, for me as a player back then, it was huge.”
Reflecting on his life further, Hammon recalled Bryant’s last All-Star Game in 2016 when she became aware of how “at peace he was with walking away.” Hammon was an assistant for the game in Toronto under Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, who was named the Western Conference All-Star coach.
“He was so secure in his identity as a man, that he was like, ‘I’m not going to miss it,'” Hammon said. “He had given all he could give to the game and was ready to tackle the next journey. But the peace he had walking away from the game, it floored me; it stuck with me.
“Kobe, the man, trumps Kobe, the basketball player,” Hammon said. “He’s going to be missed.”